Coming to Terms with the Past

    What Form Should Remembrance Take?
    Poland: A Victim State Coming to Terms with its Past

    Memorial site at a train station in the suburbs of Łódź in Poland in memory of the Jews of the Łódź ghetto who were deported and killed by the Nazis. Photo: Stefan Weidner  © Goethe-Institut

    ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ These words, a quote from the philosopher George Santayana, can be found on a plaque in the museum of the Auschwitz concentration camp. But what does ‘remembering the past’ actually mean when – as the written recollections of those who lived through it teach us – memory is a dynamic process?

    One foggy morning in April 2010, a Polish government plane crashed on its descent towards the airport near the Russian city of Smolensk. The president of Poland and his wife were killed in the accident. The chief of staff of the Polish Armed Forces, the head of the National Bank of Poland, numerous members of parliament, clerics, and high-ranking civil servants perished along with them. The passengers on the aircraft were part of an official delegation visiting Russia on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of what is known as the Katyn massacre.

    There was no talk of an attack in the reports of the disaster in Smolensk. However, when one takes the reason for the trip, the place where the accident occurred, and the subsequent reaction to the crash into account, it is difficult to find a better starting point for a reflection on the way contemporary Poland is dealing with its past. This country, which was occupied by its powerful neighbours Russia and Germany for much of the twentieth century, can today serve as an example. However, it can also serve as a warning to those in the process of developing a historical memory after a long period of political dependency.

    In this context, I find it difficult to resist the idea that there are interesting analogies between the history of Poland and its neighbours and the history of the Middle East, especially of its regional players Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Although a discussion of this theme goes beyond the scope of this article, I would encourage the astute reader to keep this in mind while reading.

    Witnesses of history

    The Katyn massacre, which took place in 1940, is one of the most traumatic episodes in Poland’s recent history. The outbreak of the Second World War just under twelve months earlier had resulted in the occupation of the country by both Hitler’s Germany and Soviet Russia. My grandmother’s experiences at the time are typical of those of her contemporaries. After being called up as a nurse, she retreated eastwards from the capital with a military unit. Just like the soldiers she marched with night and day, she believed that they would find fresh troops deep in the heart of the country in an area tthe German aggressors had not reached, and that they would take part in a counter-attack. Instead, they marched straight into a Red Army outpost. Famished and exhausted after their long trek, the Polish soldiers were told by a Russian officer, ‘Poland has been divided! Your state no longer exists. The choice is yours: either you go back to the Germans or you stay on our side of the river. This is now the new border between Germany and the USSR. The officers among you are coming with us!’

    Naturally, a counter-attack was out of the question. But that wasn’t all. Soon afterwards, the news that the country’s political and military leaders had fled abroad spread like wildfire. The defeat of the Polish army and the division of the country was a shock. The people had trusted their government and now felt cheated and let down by it. Some became hysterical; others were consumed by an apathy that made them indifferent to everything.

    My grandmother decided to go back to the area occupied by Germany. She returned to the capital and spent the six years of the war and, during the Communist era, a further forty-four years under de facto Soviet occupation. Back then, in 1939, she was lucky that neither she nor her father were officers, as officers in the Polish army were incarcerated in Soviet prison camps like Katyn, where a total of about 22,000 people were murdered. Poland lost half its officers in the massacre. The policies of both the occupying forces were very similar: they wanted to wipe out the educated elite, thereby intellectually degrading the country.

    Whispered wounds

    To this day, the crime that was Katyn has been manipulated many times over in Poland’s historical memory. It is an irony of history that it was the Nazis who discovered and reported the massacre during the war. They published the names of those who had been murdered, and also named the perpetrators of the crime. But the Soviets denied everything. In later years, in Communist Poland, people could be imprisoned for commemorating Katyn. Both in schoolbooks and on public occasions, either what happened was never mentioned or it was claimed that the Nazis had actually been the murderers. All my grandmother could do was whisper to me – a boy at the time – during walks in the park, when she was sure that no one was listening, what she had seen with her own eyes, and what my favourite teacher at school had dismissed as a lie.

    Things changed in Eastern Europe in 1989. The Red Army withdrew from Polish territory. The USSR no longer propped up the country’s Communist government and no longer controlled it. Now, the truth about who was responsible for the Katyn massacre finally appeared in the history books. However, it quickly became clear that re-writing the history books could not make up for the decades of censorship and lies; above all, it could not redeem the suppressed feelings and the wounds that had not been allowed to heal. The moment the word was liberated, the battle over the culture of memory began.

    Deadly irony

    I learned about the tragedy of the plane crash near Smolensk the morning it happened. I had just returned to Lebanon after a brief holiday in Jordan. In the hours that followed, I received messages of condolence from Arab friends and also from people I didn’t even know. People didn’t hesitate to use grand expressions: ‘This is a national tragedy for your country’, ‘The Polish people do not deserve a fate such as this’, ‘Our hearts go out to Poland and we share your pain’.

    The next day, when I spoke in Beirut about the politicians who had lost their lives in the disaster, some of the Lebanese people I talked to made jokes: ‘You know that I’m very sorry about what happened, but if a plane carrying Lebanese statesmen were to crash, we might at last see some movement in this country’s politics.’

    I have never made a secret of the fact that I was certainly not a supporter of the political camp to which the deceased president, Lech Kaczyński, belonged, despite the fact that plans for top-ranking statesmen from both Poland and Russia to mark the anniversary of the massacre, and the broadcasting of the film Katyń by director Andrzej Wajda on Russian television, signified a change in relations between the two countries.

    The irony of this disaster is the fact that Kaczyński, who had previously been mayor of Warsaw, was one of the key people shaping Poland’s culture of remembrance. The film Katyń was made in 2007 under his personal patronage.Yet to this day, Lech Kaczyński’s attitude towards historical memory makes me feel uneasy. It pays homage to an anachronistic definition of the nation and of patriotism, a definition that does not shy away from making opportunistic compromises in areas that deserve an honest, social debate. All too often, I saw in it an almost mystical image of Poland as the wretched victim of major foreign powers and deceitful allies. After the Smolensk disaster, this view of things gained ground and to this day it often sets the tone.

    Is honour the same as vanity?

    The film Katyń illustrates this attitude well.Its importance does not lie solely in the fact that, under the patronage of the head of state, the Polish star director brought together a group of outstanding actors on the set. What is more important is that the film has almost become an obligatory element of the school history syllabus. The Polish foreign ministry also encourages diplomatic missions all over the world to promote the film abroad. For this reason, Katyń is not just a feature film loosely based on actual events, it is an educational medium that is exporting Poland’s historical memory beyond its borders. This should be borne in mind when judging Wajda’s film.

    The plot of the film focuses on a handful of officers who are captured by the Soviets and taken to Katyn, where they are brutally murdered. The film also focuses on the fate of their wives and mothers, who do not know for certain what has happened to their husbands and sons. Some of them wait for years in the hope that the men, who are in fact long dead, will one day return. The plot used by the director is a simple one: innocent people are murdered by horrendous, godless oppressors, and the relatives of the victims suffer the appalling pain of uncertainty.

    Right at the start, the film’s opening scene astonishes me. One of the officers, who has just been captured by the Soviets, has the chance to escape right before the convoy leaves. He even sees his wife and young daughter. They try to persuade him to seize the opportunity and stay with them. The protagonist refuses, citing honour as his reason for going back. After all, there can be no question of an officer of the Polish Armed Forces fleeing.

    This gets me thinking about what his sacrifice actually achieves, apart from the death of yet another young person and the suffering of his family. This was a death without a struggle, with absolutely no chance of political or ideological success. Should we really be propagating an attitude like this and holding it up as an example?

    It may well be that this scene in the film reflects the way people thought at the time. But why doesn’t the director examine this way of thinking more closely? The opposite is the case: the message of the film – and, therefore, the type of remembrance culture – is in the form of an allegory. There is only one option; the interpretation of what is good and what is bad has been predetermined.

    This is evident in one of the very first scenes in the film. On the square in front of the church, a wife sees a body covered with her husband’s army coat. A priest is giving the last rites. Horrified, she tears away the coat, revealing not a human corpse but a sculpture of the crucified Christ. Is Wajda really trying to tell us that the death of Polish officers in Katyn is like the sacrifice of the Son of God?

    One of the film’s protagonists manages to survive Katyn and return to Communist Poland after the war. He cannot come to terms with the fact that the people around him treat him like a collaborator, and he commits suicide. But as far as they are concerned he returned to Poland with the Soviet army, the very same army that just a few years earlier had murdered his fellow officers. He managed to survive the tragedy, but his survival was not a source of joy. On the contrary, it led to another death: his own. His conscience was wracked by the reproaches of the families of his brothers-in-arms. In their thoughts, in their words, in what they did, they kept asking him the same question over and over again: ‘Why is it that you survived and not my husband, my son ...?’

    In view of the singular way in which the Polish people recovered from forty years of enforced silence and lies, perhaps this allegorical view of things is even understandable. But when, seventy years after the event, general education and promotion abroad is involved, the historical memory of this dreadfully traumatic event should be expressed in a far more nuanced way.

    The offended potato

    Lech Kaczyński himself was incredibly sensitive with regard to Poland’s image around the world (and his own image as president). Sometimes, this sensitivity took strange forms. An outstanding example of this is the affair surrounding the nickname ‘Poland’s new potato’, which was given to him by the left-wing German daily newspaper taz in the year 2006. The satirical article in question mercilessly lampooned the president’s irredeemably anti-German, anti-Russian stance. The author describes Kaczyński’s vision of the world as one in which ‘ever since the Middle Ages the Germans have all been leaping onto their trusty steeds and galloping hell for leather eastwards’.

    This article, published in what was, after all, a privately-owned newspaper, unleashed a storm of indignation from Kaczyński. He cancelled meetings with partners in Germany and demanded a judicial inquiry into the author of the satirical piece. Should a head of state who is so sensitive about his personal image be entrusted with shaping the historical memory of a nation?

    When Obama errs ...

    The problem of the so-called ‘Polish death camps’ is much more complex. This term, which refers to the concentration camps situated on the territory of occupied Poland during World War Two, is used from time to time by the media and by politicians around the world. The inappropriateness of the term stems from the fact that it can be taken to mean that Poles had something to do with the establishment of these camps, although it is a known fact that the concentration camps were set up and run by the German Nazis.

    This is still a topical issue to this day. In May 2012, President Obama used the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ in an address. Ironically, he was making this address on the occasion of the presentation of a posthumous honour to a member of the Polish resistance movement, who risked his life sneaking into both the Warsaw ghetto and a concentration camp, and was one of the first to provide the Allies with reports about the mass killing that was going on there. To many Poles, Obama’s words are painful insofar as America is often perceived as Poland’s number one ally, unlike the countries of Europe, which in the past have often failed to fulfil their treaty obligations towards Poland. But the problem runs much deeper than this.

    Hitler in our minds

    In 2011, I organised a Lebanese film festival in Warsaw and an educational project to familiarise the pupils and teachers at one particular secondary school with Lebanon. I invited three young Lebanese women to take part: a film actor, an activist and director of documentaries, and an education worker who is also an Arabist. Despite the fact that our programme was very full, my guests insisted that we set aside at least one day to make the three-hundred-kilometre journey south to the camp museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. We got up at five a.m. and got back at midnight. Even our film star, who is not used to strenuous days like this and, upon her return, was completely wiped out and in a somewhat capricious mood, admitted without hesitation the next day that the trip had been worth it.

    In Auschwitz, one encounters a whole new set of problems with historical memory. This time, however, these problems do not relate only to contemporary Poland, but to the entire Western world. I am not talking here about general questions with regard to mass tourism and communication with visitors - for example, the efforts to ensure that this historical place neither causes fatigue in visitors nor risks becoming a kind of Disneyland with multimedia, ‘authentic’ productions that allow people to get a real ‘sense’ of what went on here. On the contrary, I am talking about a confrontation with the past and encouraging visitors to help actively shape historical memory.

    During our visit, one plaque listing the victims of the camp grabs our attention. We stop and read what it says. Jews: 1 million; Poles: approx. 75,000; Sinti and Roma: 21,000; Soviet prisoners: 15,000; others: approx. 12,500. We decide to ask the English-speaking guide who exactly the museum’s historians mean when they write ‘Jews’ or ‘Poles’.
    ‘That’s easy,’ says the museum guide. ‘Jews are those who are of the Jewish faith.’
    ‘Aha,’ I say. ‘In that case, who are the Poles mentioned on the list?’
    ‘Well, erm ...’ She becomes hesitant. ‘Those are the citizens of Poland.’
    ‘Citizens ...’ I say, repeating what she has just said. ‘So the Jews mentioned above, were they not citizens?’
    By this time, the museum guide is clearly very uneasy, and says meekly, ‘Well ... erm ... Yes, they were citizens too. Almost half were citizens of Hungary, and about 300,000 were citizens of Poland. The rest came from other European countries ...’
    ‘So,’ I ask, wanting to make sure I am in no doubt as to what she is saying, ‘the Poles who are listed here are not just citizens of Poland, but citizens of the Catholic faith?’
    ‘That’s right,’ she says.
    ‘So why the confusion?’, we wonder. ‘Why doesn’t the plaque read “Poles of this and that faith”, “Hungarians of this and that faith”, and so on?’
    Can this really be possible? The museum is actually using Hitler’s categories! The nationality of the prisoners in this camp, their faith, or who they considered themselves to be is not important. The only thing that counted was whether the Nazis considered them Poles, Jews, or gypsies. Today, we are well aware that the Nazis acted on the basis of invented, false criteria. They did not based their actions on any kind of scientific theory, nor on the actual nationality of their victims.
    But the museum guide doesn’t give up.
    ‘You don’t know what it’s like here,’ she says in irritation. ‘Let’s say a Polish tour group led by a Catholic priest comes to the camp. If the plaque were to read “Poles of the Mosaic faith”, the priest would wring our necks. He would angrily tell us that a true Pole is a Catholic. Now, on the other hand, let’s take as an example an Israeli tour group. We get a lot of them here. If the plaque read “Pole” and not “Jew”, the Israelis would make mincemeat of us, regardless of what else was written on the plaque. “But they were our people - they were Jews, not Poles!” they would tell us.’

    We leave the museum guide behind us. After all, the policy of remembrance pursued by the public museum and the state’s control of this policy is not her responsibility. There can be no doubt that this policy is based on opportunistic compromises. For it to be successful, a campaign against the term ‘Polish death camps’ has to liberate itself from such compromises. During the visit to Auschwitz, I was quite simply mortified in front of my Lebanese guests.

    Memory as a sarcastic process

    After the disaster in 2010, the Polish media – regardless of their political orientation – suddenly adopted an unusual tone. They called on people to come and bid farewell to the president on his final journey. Many political opponents were suddenly convinced that Lech Kaczyński had been an outstanding politician. The convoy carrying the president’s mortal remains was reminiscent of a military convoy, as if the focus was on the role of the military in a time when we – and I do believe this to be the case – are nowhere near being at war.

    This was another occasion on which the dynamic process of memory was evident. The most diverse conspiracy theories sprang up like mushrooms. Some blamed the Russians, the ‘eternal enemy of Poland’, who had raised their hand – and not for the first time, either – against the ‘flower of the Polish nation’. Others pointed the finger at Polish politicians who had supposedly succumbed to the disgrace of collaboration. It was hinted that the best evidence of the treason of this latter group was the fact that they had not been on board the plane that crashed.

    However, the black box recordings showed – although not unequivocally in every instance – that the cause of the disaster was much more straightforward. One aspect was an unfortunate chain of technical circumstances. Much of the evidence also points to the pilots having been put under pressure by the commander of the Air Force. No doubt they feared the dissatisfaction of the notoriously moody president. Despite the bad weather conditions and the advice from air traffic control to divert to another airport, the captain decided in favour of making a risky landing.

    At the same time, text messages in the following vein were being forwarded all over the country: ‘On board the aircraft to Smolensk was a “small” man, a cantankerous, commonplace president who was also provincial and xenophobic and didn’t know the words of the chorus of the national anthem. This president, who had notched up the lowest popularity ratings of any Polish president to date, was not only the butt of satirical jokes, he was the laughing-stock of the whole of Europe. But the coffin that returned from Smolensk contained the body of an “extraordinary statesman”, “the father of the nation”, a “kinglike figure”. What I would like to know is this: who the hell switched the bodies? Where are Kaczyński’s remains?’

    The good, the bad, and the history

    Recalling the jokes made by my Lebanese acquaintances, I prefer not to make any inappropriate comparisons. Lech Kaczyński was no Lebanese warlord. Nonetheless, his brother’s political allies and many other conservative politicians of their ilk have a very particular view of historical memory. They honour the attitude of pre-war officers and contrast it with the ‘collaborators’ of the Communist era, while not forgetting their ancient enemies who lie in wait at the border, and the world, which is indifferent to the sacrifice of Poland, the Christ among peoples. Where does this simplifying, glorifying language of historical memory come from?

    Part of the problem are the instances of opportunistic manipulation that always play a role in politics, both domestic and foreign. Nevertheless, the key element is the attitude, which was shaped in an era when Poland was indeed occupied or had to fear for the safety of its borders, an era when the truth had to be hidden. This was true both of the official historiography – which has always been susceptible to influence – and of human memories. The latter, even if they cannot in principle be assigned to any ideological formula, are subject to distortion as soon as they come into contact with the power of government. However, it is worth differentiating between times of high conflict and periods of peace, which facilitate honest, social debates.

    When the broader view is taken, the language of historical memory under the Kaczyński brothers was a language of the juxtaposition of good and evil. That said, morality is not a historical category. It belongs more to the poetics of war – often with God as the great warrior in the background.

    Rest in peace ...

    I firmly believe that it is worth putting this formulaic view of history behind us. When I speak to my grandmother, and also as part of my work at the Museum of the History of National Socialism in Cologne, I hear contemporary witnesses and help to document their memories. I am convinced that the historical memory of a country cannot be composed solely of the memories of its heroes, and that those acts of which one should be ashamed are an equally important part of this memory.

    Take, for example, the tragicomic story of two wounded Germans who ended up being nursed by my grandmother during the fight against the Polish resistance in 1944. One of the two trusted the nurse and allowed her to bandage his wounds; the other was afraid to do so, and urged the other to leave the insurgent hospital as soon as possible. They left the building, and didn’t even make it a hundred metres. They were shot by members of the Polish resistance before my grandmother’s eyes.

    In the view of Poland presented in Wajda’s Katyń, there is no place for similarly ambivalent eyewitness accounts, either on a personal or a political level. The shock of defeat in 1939 and the tragic consequences of the bankruptcy of the pre-war Polish state and its outdated, badly-led army are presented as a heroic sacrifice. When I watch the film, it also conveys to me the impression that it is more patriotic to send your best sons to their deaths (and what a heroic death) than to make sure that they survive, as is so absolutely essential for society.

    This is not a view of historical memory to which I can subscribe. In my view it lacks authenticity, the full ambivalence of human behaviour. Similarly, there is no well-founded analysis of the historical catastrophes and the role of the leaders who did not succeed in preventing these defeats and did not even have the courage to warn society that they were inevitable. This is the kind of content that should be included in the history books.

    I wish that the human and historical tragedies of Katyn and Auschwitz – and, at a completely different level, the government plane crash in Smolensk – would cease to be part of the manipulation of the culture of remembrance. Poland today is surrounded by friends. One can draw on its intercultural and non-belligerent assets and enrich them with new aspects relating to the creation of a common Europe. It is high time to change the language of remembrance. The poetics of war are no longer necessary, and neither are the poetics of the film Katyń. They should rest in peace - perhaps even alongside the ‘king-like’ Lech Kaczyński in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.
    Stanisław Strasburger
    is a Polish journalist and writer. Among other things, he organises cultural projects involving Poland, Germany, and Lebanon. His novel Handlarz wspomień [The Story Seller] was published in 2009. In Arabic he has written for a number of newspapers including the Lebanese daily As-Safir. He is currently working on the collective historical memory project ‘Art and Archive’ in Germany and Lebanon.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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